The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) stands against the 70 year, one-party rule of the PRI oe the ruling party of Mexico. But they especially take issue against the oppression that this reign has wrought on the people of Mexico.
They consider themselves a national movement, even though they are primarily located in the southernmost state of Chiapas. According to the Zapatistas, "we are the dispossessed millions..." and their enemies are the "wealthy and the State" who have oppressed Mexican nationals for at least the last 70 years and the indigenous people for the last 500 years.
The Zapatistas argue that "attempting change through all legal means" has been rendered entirely unsuccessful by the PRI dictatorship, and therefore they call on Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution, which states that "the people have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify the form of their government." For the Zapatistas, armed struggle is the only means available to them.
They chose to begin their rebellion on the first of January, 1994 to coincide with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because it is a "death sentence." According to Sub-Commander Marcos of the EZLN, "when [NAFTA] goes into effect it will represent an international massacre" because the treaty will only exacerbate the polarization of wealth in Mexico oe and hence increase the poverty and immiseration of the Mexican poor.
The Zapatistas take their name from the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, who fought in the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The EZLN's demands echo the original Zapata's Plan of Ayala oe the plan for which Zapata fought oe "the immense majority of Mexican [people] are owners of no more than the land they walk on... because lands, timber, and water are monopolized in a few hands."
Their demands are fairly straight forward. According to the EZLN Communique of June 12, 1994, "the demands of the EZLN are summed up in the 11 points affirmed in the Declaration from the Lacondon Jungle: Work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace."
Their stated demands on the Mexican government include an end to illiteracy, the right to education, the right to dignified jobs, respect for indigenous peoples and cultures, the creation of hospitals, freedom for an independent press, a cancellation of debts for the poor, an end to hunger, malnutrition and brutal exploitation, the release of political prisoners, the creation truly free and democratic elections, "an end to centralization" and establishment of municipal "self-governance with political, economic and cultural autonomy," and for women, they demanded birth clinics, child care and access to education.
The EZLN's land reform program is laid down in the Agrarian Revolutionary Law. The Zapatistas argue that the land ought to be returned "to those who work it." All large land estates will be expropriated for the purpose of creating collective farms so that all poor peasants can work to supply food to their families. "The purpose of collective production is primarily to satisfy the people's needs." All collective farms will not be taxed. And all debts owed by poor peasants to either the government, foreigners, or the wealth elite will be abolished.
For the people in urban areas, all inhabitants who have rented their homes for at least 15 years will not continue to pay rent. For those renters who have lived in their residences for less time, they will pay a maximum of 10 percent of salary of the head of the household. All vacant buildings, public or private, will be expropriated and given to the poor based on need and availability to be determined by neighborhood committees.
While these demands echo many of the demands of other revolutionary groups in Latin America, the Zapatistas are very different than other guerrilla counterparts around the world. They are not Marxists oe they have said this on many occasions. They do not rely on random violence nor fear and intimidation as opposed to groups like the Maoist Shining Path in Peru. They are not financed by foreigners even though the Mexican government tried to argue otherwise in an attempt to isolate and disparage their movement. But their uniqueness goes well beyond these issues.
The Zapatistas are anti-patriarchal and openly oppose sexism. According to the first article of the Revolutionary Women's Law of the EZLN, "Women, regardless of their race, creed, color or political affiliation, have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in a way determined by their desire and ability."
Women hold many positions of leadership in the EZLN organization, including military commanders. According to Ana Maria, who holds the rank of Major in the EZLN, "everything is done equally. Here no differences exist. One day it's the men's turn to cook, the following day, it's the women's and the next, both. If clothes need to be washed a man can also do it."
The Zapatistas stand for the rights of self-determination for all people, including indigenous peoples. They are national in scope, yet they also see the need to expose the brutal situation that the indigenous people have endured for the last 500 years. To rectify this, they maintain that all people "regardless of race, creed or color" should be treated to same. They are nationalistic only in the sense of the scope of their demands. They are not nationalistic in the sense of chauvinism.
The EZLN also understands the importance of ecology and preservation of the environment. Article 13 of the Revolutionary Agrarian Law states, "zones of virgin jungle and forest will be preserved. There will be reforestation campaigns in the principle zones." Continuing in Article 14: "The riverheads, rivers, lakes and oceans are the collective property of the Mexican people and they will be cared for by not polluting them and punishing their misuse."
Sub-Commander Marcos pointed out other differences in the second month of their rebellion. "We don't see the armed struggle in the classical sense of the earlier guerrillas, which is to say, the armed struggle as the only road, as a single all-powerful truth by means of which everything is held together. Since the beginning we've always seen the armed struggle as part of a series of processes or forms of struggle that will be changing. Sometimes one [form] is more important and sometimes another." In other words, the Zapatistas are not a vanguard movement in which all forms of resistance must conform to their particular revolutionary program. Other forms of struggle are welcomed by the EZLN oe electoral means, legal organizational means or any others that people desire to attempt.
Another striking difference is the Zapatistas opposition to the cult of personality that has often been the staple of revolutionary movement all across the world, be it Fidel Castro, Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse Tung. Sub-Commander Marcos ironically, has nearly become a national hero as the masked leader of the Zapatistas. But according to Marcos, this is the opposite of what their black ski-masks represent.
"The hood is so there would be no superstar or such, you understand. Sometimes there is, well, those of us who are involved in this stand out alot. So now, as you don't know much of who is who, perhaps one will leave in a while and perhaps it's the same. What's happening here is the issue of anonymity, not because we fear for ourselves but rather so we don't become corrupted. And so we wear ski masks"
(from an interview conducted on January 1, 1994).
The EZLN stands against the notion of leadership that is not tied directly to the communities for which they are fighting. Decentralization is the norm, not the exception. Marcos is often portrayed as the "leader," yet he often emphasizes that he is "Sub" Commander. He is not in charge. Organizational and military decisions are left to the Revolutionary Indigenous Clandestine Committee - General Command (CCRI-CG of the EZLN). This body is made up of community elders from the Zapatista controlled territory. But even this body is not the final authroity behind the EZLN. All major political decisions are made by community assemblies. The government 'peace' proposal, which met only some of the Zapatista's demands, offered in June, 1994, was rejected by a vote by all Zapatistas.
This mode of political organization is a model that the Zapatistas see as a way to replace the current political structure. Regional assemblies could replace the present system of State centralization. They argue for a new political system based on village autonomy oe perhaps even without a national government.
This echos the demands of the original Zapata, whose General Law on Municipal Liberties (September, 1916) stated that "Municipal liberty is the first and most important of democratic institutions, since nothing is more natural or worthy of respect then the right which citizen's of any settlement have of arranging themselves the affairs of their common life and of resolving as best suits them in the interests and the needs of the locality."
The CCRI-CG of the EZLN has asked the people of Mexico and the world: "Don't abandon us. Don't let us die alone. Don't leave our struggle in the emptiness of the great rulers. Brothers and Sisters, may our way be the way for all: Freedom, democracy, justice." They will fight on until their demands are met, for the situation created by the Mexican government has left only two options: victory and freedom or surrender and death.
Sub-Commander Marcos relates a story about the Zapatista's discussions on June 10, 1994 over the government 'peace' proposal:
"They advised us to be prudent and to sign the peace [agreement]. They said the government would finish us off in hours or days, at the latest, if we didn't sign for peace... They asked us to prudently surrender and live... Who could live with that shame? Who trades life for dignity? Such sensible advice was useless... All afternoon we talked in the Committee. We tried to find the word 'surrender' in some language but we couldn't. It doesn't translate into Tzotzil nor into Tzeltal and no one remembers that word in Tojolabal or in Chol. We spend hours trying to find an equivalent... Someone arrives with rain pouring off the cap and the rifle, 'Coffee's ready', they tell us. The Committee, as is customary in these parts, takes a vote to see if they'll have coffee or continue trying to find the equivalent of 'SURRENDER' in the language of truth. Coffee wins unanimously. NO ONE SURRENDERS. Will we be alone?"